Category Archives: politics

20 Years Later

Okay, so I know this blog is a couple of weeks late. On September 11, 2021 I visited the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska to honor the 20 year anniversary of one of the most horrific events of my lifetime.

Sometimes, it is difficult to explain to those who were not yet alive or too young to remember how this event made a lot of us feel.

Many people describe the period of time between the end of the cold war (1989) and the September 11th attacks (2001) as a “break from history” of sorts. 12 years is not a long time when considering the overall course of history. However, 12 years is significant when it comes to the course of one’s own life. Many people, especially those who were quite young during that time period, got accustomed to a world that did not seem that dangerous.

It is why Trying to Make Sense of It is a very appropriate name for this exhibit. On that day, and for the weeks and months that followed, what most of us were trying to do is try to make sense of it. I recall it was the era of AOL Instant Messenger and when we were away we would put up away messages that would function as kind of an auto-reply to anyone that messaged us. That day mine was…

So we’re different colors and different breeds. And different people have different needs. It’s obvious you hate me though I’ve done nothing wrong. I never even met you so what could I have done? (Depeche Mode, 1985)

Yeah, I like to quote song lyrics.

The museum exhibit is a really good one. It contains some writing about how we all felt during the event.

There was also bunch of tables where people can use blocks to create their own art. I think it is mainly for children, but I made one anyways.

Typically, when I get a chance to do something creative, I try to do something off the wall. However, with the memories of growing up in pre-9/11 New York, all I really wanted to do was create two identical square shaped towers and remember how the skyline once looked.

The main part of the exhibit is a series of quilts that were made to honor those who died that day. There were a lot of them, some had names, some had flags and other designs. There were people from other countries that died that day, and those flags are represented here too.

Already emotional, the thing that got me into tears was actually seeing the faces of some of the victims. I guess that is how human emotions work.

That day I was generally fixated on the past, listening to a station called XM-FLY, which plays a lot of music from that time. However, I began to reflect on the event’s lasting legacy.

The first few months we seemed so united. For a little bit of time, a moment in history, all of our differences didn’t matter. All that mattered was that we were all American. We were all sad, mourning the deaths and pledging to be strong and continue living as free and prosperous people.

This would be the last time in American history anything would feel like that. It wouldn’t be long before we would first become divided over our response to the attacks and military interventions in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Then, a financial crash would cause us to lose faith in many institutions. Social media would further divide us. The economic stress and loneliness caused by these two developments would lead to all new divides, including the generational divide that created “those damn Millennials” and “OK Boomer.”

I wonder what the people who perished that day, especially those who heroically took down flight 93 before it could crash into the White House would think about where we are today. Maybe some of them would understand. Maybe some of these large scale trends are more powerful than any one event. Recently, after viewing some mean spirited content on Nextdoor, an app meant to connect neighbors, I came to the realization that any platform that facilitates asynchronous chat where people do not have to see people’s facial expressions will descend into nastiness, the same way Facebook, Reddit and Twitter have.

Part of me misses that world of national unity. However, it is important to be realistic. First, it was never going to last. The fact that another tragedy that has lead to far more deaths, COVID-19, has only made us more divided is evidence of these more powerful cultural forces. Second, times of national unity commonly revolve around a crisis; the War of 1812, the World Wars, terrorist attacks, etc. Maybe it is time to find some national unity around something positive. However, sadly, with where things are it feels like we could not be further from that moment. There’s too much fear around us.

The Great Divergence

When the first pandemic in over 100 years disrupted our lives, forcing many of us to stay home and stay apart from one another, I instantly became consumed with what life would be like when the pandemic comes to an end. Will this event cause us to re-think the way we are all living our lives? Or will we go back to our old ways once the danger of spreading a potentially deadly virus subsides? Will the changes associated with this once in a lifetime event be for the better or for the worse?

This summer, after a little over a year, we will finally get the opportunity to start seeing what this post-pandemic world will look like.

From observing how people behaved during the pandemic, and how people are acting as it comes to an end, there appears to be several points of divergence.

Back to what we had before or on to something new?

It would be hard to think of a more obvious area of post-pandemic divergence than this one. There is nothing I want more than to return to the activities many of us were denied for a little over a year. But, do we need to return to everything about the world in 2019? Some employers are already asking their employees to commute to the office five days a week once again. This, despite numerous studies showing people are actually more productive working from home.

The same can be said for many other aspects of how we live our lives. There is the instinct to return to “normal”. There is also the instinct to find a way to take the lessons learned from this experience and create something better. However, there also appears to be a current of fear, as many of us started living a different life during the pandemic. Now have to merge that version of ourselves and our “normal” lives.

A new power structure

Disruptive events stir the pot. They mix things up. There are winners and losers. An aspect of this appears to be luck. During the pandemic, people in “essential services” and in jobs that could be done remotely mostly did well while those in industries like travel and tourism got hurt pretty bad.

The post-pandemic world will come with a completely different set of changes that will stir the pot once again. Some people and groups will come out of it significantly more powerful and influential, while others will be significantly less so. A question for all of us is, are we ready to adjust the way we do things to fit into this new world?

A new found appreciation

The Best Views of New York’s Skyline

One of the first things I remember hearing about after the onset of the pandemic was the New York Times opinion piece where columnist Roger Cohen forgave the City of New York for everything that he had been annoyed about. It appeared as if the pandemic had given him a new found appreciation for the city, leading him to focus less on the petty annoyances covered in the article, from rats to traffic and bad odor, and more on what he loves about the city- it’s liveliness.

Can we say the same thing for the people and places that meant a lot to us in our lives? When the pandemic struck, did we contact the people we wish we could still see? Or did we yell at strangers for their views or behavior as we were all fearful?

While I wish to never return to wearing masks and social distancing, I hope to retain my appreciation for less active days, one-on-one experiences as opposed to large groups, and people who’s jobs are important but often under appreciated. There is the instinct to discard everything that happened in an effort to simply forget this horrible period of time. However, there is also the instinct to remember being without the people and places we love and continue to appreciate them.

Freedom or Avoiding Risk

I often hear people talk about the lack of a standard flu season this past winter, due to our mask wearing and social distancing. Some are even talking about adapting mask wearing every winter going forward.

The main question is, what risk avoidance methods are worth it. For the past 16 months, it feels as if Americans have abandoned our traditional concern for freedom and skepticism about mandates that curtail it. There is a divergence here between the desire to return to our orientation toward freedom, removing some of the extra layers of control adapted during the pandemic and fear of the virus or what is coming next after all the crazy events of 2020.

Do we know it all?

The pandemic was not the only event to rock the world in the last year. We live in a divisive time. There are the obvious divisions out there, between political parties, ideologies and priorities. However, if we dig deeper within these divisions, another one emerges. This perhaps even deeper division is between curiosity and believing we know it all already. I have observed this division in nearly every highly intellectual setting I have entered, from graduate school to TED talks.

Are we there to learn or advocate for a cause we’ve already adapted? With everything we recently experienced and the ongoing issues of loneliness, lack of fulfillment, high asset prices, etc. both instincts will still be there.

The battle within

As is the case with any historical event or set of historical events, some people will come out better for it and others will not. It is my belief that, based on these divergences, some people (those that worked on improving themselves, are curious and ready to adjust to a new reality) are in for a better decade than others.

However, that is also far too simplistic. The divergence in attitude described here is not just from person to person, but it is within each of us individually as well. Nobody is completely only on one side of each of the divergences described in this article. So, in the end, the way this decade will turn out is not about what people or groups of people adapt certain attitudes. It will probably be about which of these competing energies emerge more prevalently and where.

When Cycling Was What I Needed

January 31, 2021 on the Platte River Trail in suburban Denver…

I ceased pedaling for a few seconds, allowing myself to slow down. This helped me successfully navigate around several groups of people, while anticipating the unpredictable motion of dogs, children and even a few less attentive adults. There were so many people walking side by side with their dogs, or even in large groups, likely families. This made navigating the trail, in sections, particularly challenging. On this section of the trail, pedestrians outnumbered cyclists by about 3-to-1.

After navigating the congested area, my mind began to wander onto some of the more pressing issues of our time.

I thought about those on the left, who were concerned with people not getting paid what they are worth and the amount of power employers seem to have over their employees. I thought about those on the right, concerned with inconsistency and the possible abandonment of our core culture. I even thought about my own concern about preserving our basic freedoms, and a political culture that has become both more divisive and intrusive into more areas of our lives.

I thought about the commonly heard proposed solutions and why I find them narrow, short-sighted and potentially dangerous. Most people support solutions that address the issues that matter to them, but could make other problems worse, or create new problems altogether. I began to ponder an innovative solution that addresses multiple concerns at once. Then, I began to wonder if the solutions I would come up with would be just as narrow and short-sighted as the ones that terrify me.

Before I knew it, I was once again rapidly approaching a large group of people, this one larger than the last group. I decided not to be aggressive. It is a Sunday. I’m not in a hurry. After all, we are still supposed to be “social distancing” and trying to avoid using hospital resources, which are needed for COVID patients, for avoidable accidents. I slowly navigate around the group. First, I pass the parents walking and talking, while avoiding the couple walking in the other direction. Then, I maneuver around several children in front of them using scooters. However, this time before fully clearing the group, I suddenly noticed another cyclist behind me.

“On Your Left!” he shouted before I had fully moved over to the right side of the trail. I guess every person on this trail has a different agenda for the day.

The same cycle repeated for about 12 miles. The experience of suddenly realizing a more aggressive cyclist was behind me even repeated several more times. Regardless, my mind was alternating, almost in a rhythm, between navigation mode and pondering mode. The more I pondered these grand issues, and processed my thoughts about human nature, the more pessimistic I became.

Then, suddenly, I entered a section of the trail I had never fully appreciated until now. It is in the Southern part of Cherry Creek State Park.

Cherry Creek State Park is known for a fairly large (for Colorado standards) reservoir where people swim, boat, and apparently also walk on the ice in winter.

Seriously, I don’t know if this is safe. Winters here are not consistently cold, and the temperature was around 53°F (11°C) at this time.

However, at the southern end of this park the trail winds through a large open field.

Maybe this is what happens when you finally start to feel the physical strain of a long bike ride and don’t have the energy to think about mentally taxing subjects. Or, maybe it was the inspiration of the bright sunshine and the contrast between the mountains in the distance and wide open, mostly brown, field in front of me. I just gazed at the scene. I realized that, unlike in many other situations, nobody was trying to make me think about those topics that were making me feel pessimistic. All I had to do was appreciate that on this, the last day of January, the dead of winter, I was enjoying a sunny day on my bicycle.

I felt youthful, untamed and uninhibited, which was exactly what I needed after a year that has been filled with fear, restrictions and divisiveness. There was no better place to be than on my bike, on this trail.

I rode my bike nearly 60 miles that day, finding a great stopping point with some hidden treasures.

We are facing a lot of challenges and it would be foolish to ignore them. However, it would also be foolish to allow them to consume us. No matter what anyone is going through or becomes concerned with, sometimes it is necessary to just enjoy the experience in the here and now.

A Letter to a Nation in Crisis

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Dear USA,

There is no denying that this in not our finest hour. We have struggled more than most with our response to the Coronavirus. Where other nations have been able to largely put the virus behind them, often with far less draconian measures, we have been unable to contain the virus. At a time when we had expected to be through the worst of it, caseloads are spiking.

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We are still suffering the economic damage from having essentially shut down our entire economy for about a month and a half.

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I mean, was this lack of traffic ever even theoretically possible

The damage will be even worse, as many of our biggest states, including California, Florida and Texas, are backing off reopening the economy. As parts of the world reopen themselves to visitors from some countries, we will find ourselves left off the list due to our high infection rate.

The world is also watching as we deal with issues of continued racial injustice. In response to several high profile news stories about the killing of unarmed blacks by law enforcement, protests have erupted all over the nation.

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Will this response to these events lead to justice and healing? Or will our problems continue or simply take on another form? Only time will tell.

One thing is for sure though. The U.S.A., the nation that I love and feel blessed to have been born a part of, is going through a tough season. We are struggling with self doubt. We are struggling with our identity. This is not the typical Fourth of July. The are far fewer crowds and celebrations. For many, the holiday is far quieter; more reflective.

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Perhaps more upsetting than the lack of travel opportunities and my general inability to live my life the way I typically do is our season of self-doubt. In the places I most commonly find myself, the pride I typically observe in people for this Nation feels to have waned. It feels unfashionable to show pride in the United States of America at this point in time.

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We all encounter periods in life where we struggle more than others with specific challenges due to our personality types.

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Different periods of time require different skill sets. A period of imminent danger requires a bold leader. It will be a period where a more sensitive type will naturally struggle. But, that does not mean that the ability to support others and empathize with them is no longer an important skill.

The same can be said for this period of time in the United States. We as a Nation tend to be bold, individualistic and skeptical of top-down authority. It is for this reason, we struggle with things like mask compliance, that naturally comes so easy to many other nations. Our skepticism of authority has made our struggles with COVID-19 worse.

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However, during these turbulent times, we should not lose sight of how much we have benefitted overall from the principles on which our Nation was founded. We are one of the wealthiest and most innovative countries in the world. Most of the top tech firms are based in the United States. We recently took a major step towards returning mankind to the moon and potentially to other planets.

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We have been at the forefront of most recent global cultural trends. It is here that jazz, blues, rock and roll and hip-hop originated.

Our revolution inspired others around the world to adapt a similar societal structures. Despite our current challenges and period of self-doubt, there are still far more people looking to enter than leave.

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Right now, it might be tempting to lose sight of who we are and try to emulate places that seem to be having a better time.

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No doubt, we need to grow from this. We need to do a better job with taking care of our health, possibly reshuffling our priorities. There is also without a doubt a need to improve the way certain racial groups are treated in this country. However, we need to do so in a manner that is consistent with who we are, at our core. Trying to be what we are not is not a path to long term happiness. Those who I see who are forced to live a life untrue to themselves suffer a kind of spiritual death that at times can feel even more painful than actual death.

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I want to offer this great Nation some encouragement at a time when it is most needed. Despite the extra pain it is causing in 2020, I love our skepticism of authority. Despite some challenges with too much emphasis on work, I love our free market economic system. Even though the calls for justice are legitimate, assuming those accused are innocent until proven guilty is one of our nation’s greatest attributes. Our problems don’t come from the philosophy on which we were founded and still are mostly oriented. They come from the incomplete and sometimes uneven implementation of them. Let’s grow from this tough season. Rather than become something different, something unrecognizable, let’s become an improved and more confident version of ourselves!

Love,

A concerned and still proud Citizen

WE Fest and the Culture of Northern Minnesota

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What is American Culture? This is a much tougher question to answer than most people would want to admit. Sure, there are those things about America that foreigners notice right away. For instance, the portion sizes.

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But, large portions of food, large amounts of soda, big cars, loudness and exhibitionism are not the only things that define American Culture. In fact, they do not even unite the entire nation, as there are places in the United States where these are not the customs.

American Culture cannot be described in one sentence, one paragraph, or even one page because of how far from homogenous it is. Traveling within the country, one would find many different sub-cultures. It is even possible to argue that every state, every city, and sometimes every neighborhood, has its own unique traditions and customs.

Of course, to claim there are thousands of sub-cultures in the country would be, in a way, getting too hung up on minor details. However, there is definitely grounds on which to claim there are several dozen cultures with significant distinctions from one another.

The culture of Minnesota can generally be thought of as in the same category as Wisconsin and Michigan. The entire region has an abundance of lakes. Minnesota is “The Land of 10,000 Lakes”. This culture seems to revolve around going to the lake, being on a boat, fishing, and drinking beer. People from the metropolitan areas often own second homes or cabins along a lake and travel there on the weekends. This seven week old infant living in Saint Paul is already preparing for his third trip “up to the lake”.

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Northern Minnesota specifically is fairly sparsely populated, putting it one one side of the most obvious cultural divide in the U.S.; urban vs. rural. Generally speaking, on either side of this divide between large metropolitan areas and places more sparsely populated. The expectations are different, the attitudes are different, and, the music is different. There is perhaps no better way to get immersed in the culture of rural America than to go to a country music festival.

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WE Fest is a major country music festival in Detroit Lakes, MN. The attendance, in 2018, was said to have topped 65,000. Here, the different customs and attitudes were on full display.

The U.S.A flag was everywhere! So were messages, from performers and attendees alike (often on their shirts) showing support for the American way of like, the military, and other mainstays of American culture.

This is not to say people in the cities do not love their country. But, there does seem to be significantly less exhibitionism about it. There is also, in some sub-cultures, particularly the ones centered around major academic institutions, a greater willingness to criticize actions taken by the United States of America. In some cases, this comes across as downright cynicism.

To be honest, there is something about the flag waving, proud, traditional rural culture that feels warmer …  happier. It feels far better to believe in something and take pride in it than to succumb to cynicism and long for something else. Cynicism can feel quite cold at times, and self-loathing creates sadness.

Yet, the more traditional culture can also feel unnecessarily restrictive.

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Seriously, let the dogs and cats have fun too!

While exhibitionism can be annoying to some people, taking excessive pride in one’s country truly only becomes harmful when it leads to one of two outcomes.

First is the hostile treatment of outsiders. In the case of National pride, this would be treating non-Americans as lesser human beings. This is not to say that most, or even one-in-ten flag waving rural Americans have ever advocated treating outsiders poorly. It is to say that, excessive pride in a group of people, whether it be a nationality, a gang, or even something like a personality type, can lead to some form of non-beneficial disconnect from those with different traits.

Second, is when pride leads to an attitude where no criticism, even if constructive, is tolerated. Not all decisions are good decisions.

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Loving another human being can sometimes mean needing to tell that person when they are choosing the wrong course of action. Loving oneself means seeking ways in which to improve. The same can be said for a nation. Like an individual, a nation needs to try to avoid poor decisions and seek ways in which to improve. Pride can lead to avoiding all criticism and seeing no need to take suggestions or improve, which is detrimental.

Maybe this nation, like every nation, needs people to remind them that the nation is great, with a great culture and heritage. But, also needs people to point out some shortcomings, help it avoid repeating past mistakes, and point out areas where improvements can be made. These are the traits of a balanced individual, and hopefully, going forward, can be the traits of a balanced nation.

The Largest Farmers Market in the USA

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It is the farmers market that ruined me for all other farmers markets. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for several years, I would regularly attend the Dane County Farmer’s Market, the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the country. Every Saturday morning during the warm season, the entire capital square would be filled with vendors, selling fresh produce, flowers, baked goods, and, of course, because this is Wisconsin, cheese and meat.

Each Saturday, between 9 A.M. and noon, crowds of people pack the sidewalks that surround the capitol square, creating a lively scene. It was enough volume, enough activity, that every other farmer’s market I visited after this one has left me asking “Is this it”?

That is partially because the Dane County Farmers Market is a unique experience in a unique place. It was included as a “must see” in the book 1,000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before You Die.

The book, however, was published in 2007, and a lot has changed since then. One distinct characteristic of the 21st century is the presence of simultaneous contradictory trends. For example, we have a new generation of people emerging who both spend over nine hours per day in front of screens and prefer face-to-face interactions. Likewise, while obesity rates continue to climb, people are also becoming more health conscious and more aware of the food they consume.

Specifically, with detox diets, and awareness of the amount of waste caused by our food distribution system, more and more people are desiring locally sourced food. This can be seen at grocery stores and even some restaurants, where more and more displays indicate that food was produced on a “local” farm. Farmers markets are expanding everywhere to meet this increasing demand to buy locally produced preservative free produce. Some lists of top farmers markets in the USA published more recently do not even include the Dane County Farmers Market.

The Dane County Farmers Market still certainly represents a unique experience, as it has always been about more than just the vendors.

As far as I can remember, Madison has always been a very political town. On all four corners of the square, booths promoting political causes and local candidates are an expected presence. Along the roads that radiate outward from the Capitol Square, more interesting activity can be found, including live performances, some additional vendors and demonstrations of activities like wood carving, and even an impromptu children’s play area placed in front of the children’s museum.

I would say that Madison, Wisconsin is certainly more interesting than most towns around this size. The college campus guarantees plenty of interesting cultural activities. The pedestrian mall, State Street, that connects the capitol with campus is always active, even if it does have a speed limit that just begs people to break it… on their bicycles.

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And there are the lakes, four of them to be exact, of pretty good size, one of which is directly adjacent to the University.

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The city has two other characteristics that, having visited a lot of different places, feel quite surprising.

One is how strong drinks are mixed here, particularly on State Street. I ordered a make-your-own-bloody mary at one of the many establishments on State Street. Restaurants that offer this beverage typically provide a glass with vodka to mix with the other ingredients at the bloody mary bar. This is the only place where the glass provided to me was filled halfway up! Mixed drinks at other bars are also quite strong compared to the ones in most other cities.

From a now outsider perspective, it is also surprising to see how politically one-sided Madison is. Signs promoting events and groups, conversations around town and even signs in front of local businesses are quite frequently politically charged, way more so than in most other cities and towns. They are all from one side. It is as if those on the other side had been silenced or run out of town. In a State that is quite close to evenly divided politically, it feels strange to be in a place where one side has near 100% dominance of the discussion.

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Sometimes I find it depressingly easy for people who live in cities to forget what region they are in, on a larger scale. Traveling around the country, it often feels like all cities are tying to build the exact same amenities as each other; luxury apartments, shared workspaces, microbreweries, and art galleries. In my current hometown of Denver there is a constant reminder of where we are, the mountains to the West which tower over the skyscrapers of the city. The Midwest does not have that, however, seeing booth after booth selling cheese curds, other agricultural products, and products like venison jerky is as clear of a reminder to any that Madison is part of Wisconsin, which is part of the Midwest.

The Benefits of Being a World Traveler

IMG_1998 (1)I usually don’t like posting photos taken from an airplane. Especially ones where the wing of the airplane is clearly showing, like this one …

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The situation was just too good! The flight path, which varies from flight to flight based on upper level winds, happened to track right over Iceland. At a time of year when days are only around five hours long across much of Iceland, and less than 1-in-5 days feature clear skies, it is impossible to overestimate how fortunate of a circumstance this was: To fly over the volcanically influenced terrain at the onset of winter, seeing it in all its glory from above in broad daylight like this.

I couldn’t help but reflect on my experience there, less than two years ago, hiking on the glaciers, standing next to all the waterfalls, and seeing the northern lights.

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As I had noted then, Iceland seems to be becoming a more popular destination for American tourists. However, according to a recent study, it does not crack the top 20 countries visited by Americans (based on data from 2015). Number 7 on that list is Germany, where my flight originated, where I had spent the prior evening, in Munich.

This was the second time Munich happened to be my final destination on a longer trip to Europe. This is an interesting coincidence as Munich somehow seems to feel closer to home than most other European cities I visit.

For example, nearly every other European city I visit has a significant number of really narrow streets, like these streets in Stockholm…

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Munich, by comparison, feels wide open.

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Part of the reason Munich feels familiar to me is because, for several years, I lived in the State of Wisconsin. With an estimated 42.6% of the population having German heritage, Wisconsin has its fair share of bars and restaurants that are decorated almost exactly like this one.

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Places like the Essen Haus, have a similar layout. The serving staff dress in similar Bavarian style attire, and serve similar food and beer.

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By the way, the food at Augustiner, walking distance from Munich’s Central Station, was fantastic!

After visiting several countries, and flying over one that I had visited quite recently, I was headed home, to an America that is, based on the perspective of being abroad for a while, in a confusing place.

According to a recent article, while Americans are the 2nd most well-traveled country in the world, only 36% of Americans hold a valid passport. This is possibly the source of one stereotype about Americans, that we generally don’t travel outside of our country.

The numbers here tell a different story, one that matches what I have observed, interacting with other Americans.

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There are people here who are interested in traveling to different countries. They often plan a lot of trips to may different foreign lands. There are also a lot of people that aren’t. As, we are a vast Country. Most people can experience almost anything they would want to experience without having to leave the U.S.

We are a well traveled country, partially by virtue of being wealthy. A significant amount of that travel manifests as travel within our Nation. Travel abroad is mostly done by roughly 10% of the population with genuine personal or business interests in other places.

I in no way intend to shame anyone for not wanting to travel to other countries. That is their choice (or limitation, as some people do not have the time or money to fly to another continent). Truly secure people validate their choices in life, not by diminishing those who chose differently. They validate their choices with confidence in the benefits of those choice.

That validation, for me, can be best demonstrated in a recent article in Entrepreneur Magazine, titled “Don’t Let You Butt Dominate Your Brain“. Traveling to other places is one of several ways we remind ourselves one of the most important things we need to remember, as we take on whatever endeavors we take on in life.

Our way of doing things is not the only way things can be done.

Other cultures have other ways of doing things. We may conclude that our current culture is the best fit for us. However, just because something we observe is different does not necessarily mean it is “wrong”. In fact….

Assuming someone is wrong because they do something differently invariantly comes across as condescending.

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I generally try to keep anything political off of this blog. This is not a politics blog. I don’t see the world as currently in need of another person chiming in with their opinions about the news, at least not in America. However, going out and seeing other cultures made me reflect one something that feels like a real shortcoming in our current political situation.

The way our political system is currently set up seems to encourage us Americans to see a false dichotomy, a false choice between two ways of thinking, both of which have serious flaws.

On one side, there is a group of people who believe America can do no wrong. On this extreme, any criticism of our country is done out of hate, and there is absolutely nothing that can ever be learned from other cultures.

On the other side, a group of people that sees our country as deeply flawed. This group appears not to acknowledge what is good about America. They long for us to be like some other country, and when our culture and history is discussed, the response is usually something like “meh”, or worse.

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I can’t get down with either extreme, and it is my sincere belief that most Americans also find themselves somewhere in between these two maddening extremes. I sometimes think of countries in a similar way I would think of any other entity; a group, a person, a sports team, etc. I think of anyone that has a healthy sense of self. They believe that they are great, and do great things for the world. That does not mean they are not always looking for ways to improve, ways to be better. It also does not mean there is no room for some friendly criticism when it is warranted.

Traveling in general, particularly to other cultures, can be a powerful reminder that there is no one correct way to go about our lives. It also exposes people to new ideas. I believe everyone needs experiences like this, in order to stay open and avoid becoming too set in their ways. However, that does not necessarily have to be world travel- for everyone.

I Like Ike

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There are Presidential Museums for every President that served over the past 100 years, usually located in or near the their “hometown”. Some of the more memorable presidents from the 18th and 19th Century also have museums dedicated to their lives and accomplishments. While some of these museums are located in or near major cities, there have also been a good number of presidents who came from small towns. Their museums can sometime be interesting places to stop while traveling.

The first time I ever visited a presidential museum, I was driving from Saint Louis to Chicago on Interstate 55, a drive that had become familiar and dull to me. It was a July day and temperatures were close to 100 degrees. I knew both me and my car needed a break in the middle of the afternoon. So, I visited the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, a museum I would certainly recommend. I love stopping at places like this on a long drive, allowing the body to move around a bit, and stimulating the mind with some historical information.  So, on my drive back to Denver from Kansas City, I decided to stop at the Eisenhower Presidential Museum in Abeline, Kansas.

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The museum is located in the EXACT SPOT that the former president grew up.

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On the museum campus is Dwight Eisenhower’s boyhood home, and, with admission, visitors get a brief tour of the house.

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Map from Museum’s Webpage- does not include parts of I-35

The museum is only a few miles from Interstate 70. As president, one of Eisenhower’s signature accomplishments was the signing of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956. So, it seems fitting that this interstate highway system would find a way to serve the town Eisenhower grew up in. Arriving here without using the interstate would feel wrong in a way.

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Every president, no matter the background, has two stories. A story about what they did before they became president, and the story about what they did as president. Before becoming president, Eisenhower was known primarily as the general that oversaw the Allies European Victory in World War 2.

In fact, Eishenhower’s military career, and exhibits regarding World War 2, appear to make up the largest part of this museum. Later in life, Eisehnhower himself considered his role in the military as the most significant one he had played. In his retirement, he preferred to be addressed as “General Eishenhower”, as opposed to “Mr. President” (which is how former presidents are usually addressed).

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After helping start the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), he decided to run for President of the United States in 1952. The museum portrayed him, in a way, as a reluctant president. There is no way of knowing what truly is inside anybody’s heart. However, the way the story is portrayed is not of a man with a strong desire to become president, but of a man who spent his entire life fulfilling the various duties to which he was called. After being called to do so by countless associates, supporters, and both major political parties, leading the nation, as president, was just the final in a series of duties he was called to and performed over the course of his life.

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The entire life story that is Dwight David Eisenhower felt like a story out of a completely different time in history. This idea seems almost like a long-dormant old folklore in American culture. The hero turned leader. A person who wins the adoration and respect of a large group of people based on some heroic acts and then goes on to lead decisively, yet not divisively. A person who sincerely tries to lead all the people, rather than just the ones that are supportive. And, a person who finds a way to be both transformative and a consensus builder with views that are strong without being extreme.

[I will leave the exact details of his presidency to the history books and the museum itself.]

This feels, in a way, like the exact opposite of what has been going on recently. When it comes to this idea of a military veteran/ war hero president, there are plenty of examples throughout history, but no clearer example than Eishenhower.

I do not want to make this another angry political blog (there are way too many as it is), but I do not consider our current president, nor his predecessor, to be a hero, at least not in a general sense like the heroes past. Sure, both men are heroes to a subset of our population. However, both men were also dismissive, and sometimes in a nasty way, to other groups of people within our country. Being the first president of mixed racial background, or the first non-politician president may be important steps for our country. But it’s hard to consider being a community organizer or a business tycoon “heroic” in the traditional sense.

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There is a time and a place for everything. Maybe the middle of the 20th Century was the time and the place for the hero. It could be seen throughout the culture of that time; the Western Hero/Villain movies, characters like the Lone Ranger, and such. Our society has changed significantly since then. Movies this decade more commonly feature protagonists with some form of character flaw, and antagonists who draw some amount of sympathy based on their life experiences or perspectives.

As our culture progresses, we enter a period where maybe we should not look to a hero, but within ourselves. Most of the problems we face today are not as straight-forward as a General coming in and defeating Nazis. They’re more complex, like structural racism which results from the cumulative effect of people’s individual attitudes and pre-conceptions, the negative emotional and communal effects selfishness and the accessibility of smart phones create, or the susceptibility of those that feel disenfranchised to messages promoting radical and sometimes violent behavior. They are not solved by a leader, an army, or a bunch of laws. They are solved by each person’s behavior, one by one, day in and day out.

A Weekend in Texas

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In my last post, I describe my experiences visiting the City of Austin, Texas.  Some people describe Austin as being “not really Texas”.  And, while that may be a simplification, or exaggeration of the experience there, the general point is that the experience of being in Austin is different than the the experience of being in any other part of Texas.  So, while I spent some time in Austin last weekend, I also got the opportunity to experience other places in Texas, and actually get immersed into the culture here.

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One of the first places I went to, just 20 miles or so outside of Austin, was the Salt Lick, for some high quality Texas barbecue.  I was surprised to see such a large establishment.  I had gone to BBQ in places like Oklahoma City and Tulsa in the past, and those experiences usually involved smaller, more side-of-the road type establishments.  I had come to, in my head, assume that was the standard BBQ experience, but the Salt Lick is pretty gigantic.  And, the first thing I saw when I entered the restaurant was a gigantic barbecue pit.  The last time I had seen so much meat in one place was at the World’s Largest Brat Festival in Wisconsin.

Texas style barbecue, of course, includes brisket.  In order to experience the full range of barbecue experience, I ordered a combination plate that included brisket, ribs, and sausage.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the restaurant asks their patrons if they want their brisket “lean”, or “moist”.  Not being a fan of fatty meats, I chose “lean”, and really enjoyed the entire meal.

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In fact, I kind of felt like I spent the entire weekend eating brisket!  The other establishments I went to, like the Salt Lick, were sizable establishments.  Coopers, in New Braunfels, was big enough to accommodate a group of 16 people without really having to adjust anything from their normal operating experience.

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Whenever I was not eating barbecue food, I was eating Mexican food, which is plentiful in Texas due to it’s close proximity to, as well as history of being a part of, Mexico.  I visited several Mexican food establishments while in Texas, including a place many of us that live elsewhere should become familiar with: Torchy’s Tacos.  Later this year, they will expand beyond the borders of Texas, opening up a location in Denver, Colorado.  They may very well expand to some other areas as well.

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This area is often referred to as “Texas Hill Country”, as, well, unlike most of the Great Plains, it is kind of hilly.  Parts of it sort of remind me of the “Driftless Area” of Southwestern Wisconsin, with rolling hills one to several hundred feet tall.  Although, the geological history these regions is quite different.

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Here I attended a wedding, and took part in another local custom, floating the river.  At the wedding, the main thing I noticed about the culture here in Texas was the affinity for line dancing.  I had expected the country music line dancing.  But, what shocked me was how often people would just naturally form a line while dancing to other songs.  When YMCA, and Gangnam Style, came on, people here just naturally formed themselves into a line as if it were second nature.

In Texas, if is quite common for people to go on “floating”, or “tubing” trips.  It is basically an outdoorsy activity that is far more relaxing than the ones I usually take part in here in Colorado.  It mostly just involves laying in a tube, and gently floating down a river.  Many people here own their own tubes to float in, and bring floatable coolers, where they pack beer.  I have heard it is quite common for people to get quite intoxicated while taking part in a float trip.

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Texas hill country also contains a lot of natural features, some of which have become common family-type tourist destinations.  A few miles west of New Braunfels is a place called Natural Bridge Caverns, which, just as the name advertises, is a Natural Bridge above ground with a cavern below ground.

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Every time I visit a place like this, I always come away with mixed views regarding the commercialization of these natural features.  One one hand, I look at staircases, buildings, and all of these artificial looking features being present, and wonder if we are losing out on some of the experience.  But, I also see that having paved roads to get here, walkways through the area, and other comfort related conveniences opens up the experience of viewing these places to many people who otherwise would not have been able to see them.

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It was in San Antonio, however, where I learned about the history of Texas.  Downtown San Antonio kind of has an odd combination of historical significance.  On one end of downtown is The Alamo.  Originally a “mission“, the place later became a military post in the war for independence from Mexico, and now a museum, which is also considered a Shrine of Texas Liberty.  This place very much celebrates the people of Texas separating from Mexico, and, of course, later joining the United States.

On the other end of downtown is a place called Historic Market Square, a place that celebrates Mexican cultural heritage.  In the plaza, I saw T-Shirts for sale that exuded Mexican pride.  In fact, with authentic Mexican food and cultural items for sale everywhere, I almost felt like I could have actually been in Mexico.

It just makes me wonder.  Is this a City that is in conflict with itself?  How do those of Mexican decent here in San Antonio feel about Texas history?

The area between the Alamo and Historic Market Square was also kind of confusing.  On the surface, the city looked kind of dreary.  I kind of felt like I was in a bad part of Chicago, or any other big city that has a significant amount of blight.  But, underneath the surface was San Antonio’s Riverwalk, which is quite lively.

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In fact, San Antonio kind of pioneered the idea of riverwalks.  And, it appears other cities are trying to copy them.

After reading about Texas history, I kind of had a better understanding of the place.  Specifically, at the Alamo, they describe a struggle in Mexican politics.  On one side there was a group of people that strongly supported a Federalist type system of government based on a constitution that was modeled after the United States.  Under this system, some powers were devolved to the states, of which Texas (or Tejas) was one.  On the other side, was a group of centralizers that wanted more control in the hands of the central government in Mexico City.  Texans strongly supported the former over the latter, and when the latter won power, they felt their way of life threatened.  The successful defense of Texas, establishment of the Lone Star Republic, and later admission to a country whose values more closely resembled their own is viewed as a triumph.

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It is without a doubt that many Texans today see a lot of parallels (whether or not they are correct) to today’s political struggles in the United States.  Having this history, one in which many people in the state take pride, definitely explains why succession talk would be much more prevalent here than it would be in other states who strongly oppose some aspects of how our Federal government is operating.

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There was always some concern over whether I would fit in here in Texas.  Anyone that talks to me can clearly hear my Long Island accent.  I do not try to hide it.  Some people who have lived in Texas  told me that it would also be obvious that I am an outsider by the manner in which I conduct myself, and the types of topics I discuss on a regular basis.

But, I took a “leap of faith” of sorts, and just decided to be myself when interacting with people here.  And, I was actually received quite warmly here, by people who probably have a significantly different lifestyle and set of values than my own.  Everyone was friendly to me, and they were even receptive to the kinds of conversation topics I tend to engage people in.

As I thought through the acceptance I experienced here, as well as the history, the current succession talk and anger, I came to an important realization.  Maybe we are not nearly as divided as people make us out to be.  Maybe it is really only the most vocal (and angry) among us that display this division.  After all, if 1.4 Million people can live in a city which celebrates both it’s Mexican heritage and it’s struggle for independence from Mexico, maybe we can find a way to celebrate what makes everyone unique.

Swing State USA 2014: The Current State of Colorado

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What is the current state of your location?  What are the trends?  What do people like to do?  What makes your particular location unique?  What are people talking about?  What are people concerned about?  What are the hopes and fears for the future?

These are amongst the questions often answered through travel.  Sometimes, even when a traveler has nothing of this nature on his or her mind, answers to questions like these present themselves.  This is why I have thoroughly enjoyed all of the travel related shows hosted by Anthony Bourdain.  In each and every show he has been involved in, he travels to various locations with the simple goal of getting a comprehensive sample of a particular region’s food.  However, in nearly every show, he strikes up conversations with people local to the area, and learns quite a lot about their culture, history, and expectations.

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Colorado has been on a lot of people’s minds lately.  Most surveys rank it one of the top 5 (or at the very least in the top 10) fastest growing states in the country.  Most of this population growth has come from migration of people from elsewhere in the country.

Colorado has also drawn significant national attention for a variety of reasons this year.  Recently, football fans at Sports Authority Field got to witness quarterback Peyton Manning break the all time record for career touchdowns.  This year, Colorado became the first state in the nation legalize the sale of recreational marijuana.  And, the city of Denver was recently ranked the 4th most influential city in the country, according to a survey of mayors.

With this being the autumn of an election year, and Colorado being a closely contested state (a “swing state”), much of the recent national media attention has turned to Colorado, and our two closely contested elections.  As the story goes, in two weeks, two very important elections are about to take place; one that will determine the direction the State of Colorado takes in the coming years (Gubernatorial), and one that may determine the direction the whole nation takes in the coming years (Senatorial).

Living in the Capitol City of such as state, one would expect these two important contests, and the political implications of them to garner a significant amount of intensity and enthusiasm.  However, if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me who I was planning to vote for in either election, I would be not a cent richer than I currently am.  By contrast, if I had a dollar for every time I was inquired about the other all important state question, whether I was getting the Epic Pass or the Rocky Mountain Super Pass, I would probably accumulate enough money for an amazing night out.

While this could be just the people I happened to associate with here in Colorado, or the types of conversations I tend to pursue, a walk through my neighborhood reveals significantly less yard signs than in most election years.

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What I do see throughout my neighborhood, as well as most areas nearby, including downtown, are fliers like this one everywhere, sometimes multiple fliers per block, attempting to get people to inquire about campaign jobs for the coming election.

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Nearly every one of them appears exactly as this one does ,with close to all of the tabs underneath the flier remaining un-pulled.  In fact, this past Wednesday evening, after a networking event, I returned to my bicycle to find a similar flier had been wedged into my brake lever; something I had never expected to see, but also something that demonstrates to me campaigns are actually having a hard time getting some of these paid positions filled.

All of this tells me that Coloradans have other things on their mind.

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There is a significant of excitement around the Denver Broncos, by far Colorado’s most cherished sports team.

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And, while this October has featured some beautiful weather, and some amazing fall colors that are atypical of this areas, many are concerned that this may delay the opening of ski season.  Most of the ski trails remain snow-free.

And, of course, people are quite divided regarding the rapid growth of the region.  Some cherish the opportunity to become the next significant and influential mega-region, with all of the privileges and responsibilities that it brings, while others lament the changes that are making the place significantly different than it was just a mere half a decade ago.

So, which is it?  Is Colorado, with its high density of start-ups, leadership in the craft brewing movement, and unique way of life, the place where trail-blazers grab the bull by the horn and reshape the world?

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Or is it still a place largely isolated from the population centers and mega regions, where people go to explore the world on their own, and escape as many outside influences as possible?

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Or, more importantly for the future, can we find a way to be both?